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Imprudent King
A New Life of Philip II
By Geoffrey Parker
438 pages. Yale, 2014. $40.

"THE HISTORY OF PHILIP THE SECOND,” historian William Hickling Prescott once wrote, “is the history of Europe during the latter half of the sixteenth century.” Prescott didn’t exaggerate. In the tumultuous decades that followed the Protestant Reformation, an era populated by giants like Elizabeth I and William the Silent, Philip II of Spain towered above the rest. He ruled Europe’s first superpower and first world empire, juggling military and diplomatic commitments around the globe. The major events of the 16th century seem to revolve around Habsburg Spain and its enigmatic sovereign, whose reign represented both the zenith of Spanish power and the beginnings of Spain’s precipitous decline.

To a larger public, Philip II remains a dark figure, an intriguer, an intolerant scourge of heretics, but scholars of Spanish history—among them, and most successfully, Geoffrey Parker—have discerned in Philip a more complex and sympathetic character. Parker’s Imprudent King follows in this tradition. Philip II has always been at the center of Parker’s remarkably broad and diverse body of scholarship, which includes a brief biography of Philip (1978) and a detailed study of Philip’s diplomacy and war making, The Grand Strategy of Philip II (1998). His new biography builds upon these earlier works, but it also incorporates much new research—first and foremost the discovery of several thousand untouched manuscripts from Philip’s regime, found just recently in a private collection in New York.

This is no mere updating of Parker’s previous work on Philip, though. It is the consummate biography of the king, the mature reflection of a master historian at the height of his craft writing about the subject he knows best. Parker deftly interweaves the details of Philip’s character and personal life with a compelling analysis of the king as a decision maker. The Philip who emerges from Imprudent King may not always be worthy of admiration, but he is sympathetic. Parker readily admits that Philip II was a deeply flawed ruler, and that the great failures of his reign—the 1588 armada debacle, the near collapse of Spanish authority in the Low Countries, the fiscal insolvency of the crown—owed much to the king’s shortcomings. Philip, as a product of his age, viewed the world around him through the prism of religion, so his personal piety often dictated his chosen course in affairs of state. His unremitting hostility to Elizabeth Tudor, his steadfast refusal to contemplate anything resembling compromise with his heterodox Dutch subjects, his dalliance with the Catholic and anti-royal faction in the French Wars of Religion—all these policy choices were driven by Philip’s need to put the interests of Catholicism ahead of those of Spain, and all committed him and his kingdom to endless and unnecessary wars. But Philip’s most destructive personality trait was his tendency to obsess over the most trivial details of every matter that came across his desk. As a result, the king was all but crushed by the sheer weight of paperwork that confronted him each day. Could Philip have done any better? Could he have triumphed over the Dutch rebels and the English heretics, maintained his overseas empire, and averted fiscal disaster? Possibly. Parker demonstrates that a slightly different decision in any one of a number of problem areas might have completely transformed the character of the reign, and likely for the better. Even so, it was not merely that the man didn’t match the task. Perhaps the most important lesson to be derived from Imprudent King touches on the transience of power. Spain possessed almost unimaginable wealth and power, but with its far-flung possessions and its infinite obligations, it was too large and unwieldy to be governed effectively with the tools available to any 16th-century ruler.

Paul Lockhart is Brage Golding Distinguished Professor of Research and professor of history at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.